- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition (April 3, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1451683200
- ISBN-13: 978-1451683202
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 269 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,271 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students Paperback – April 3, 2012
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About the Author
Allan Bloom was professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College and co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago. He taught at Yale, University of Paris, University of Toronto, Tel Aviv University, and Cornell, where he was the recipient of the Clark Teaching Award in 1967. He died in 1992.
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If "The Closing of the American Mind" captures Bloom's thought, his friend Saul Bellow's novel, "Ravelstein" (1996) captures much of Bloom the man. I think Bloom's book and Bellow's novel will be permanently intertwined in the history of American thought and literature. It is difficult to think of one without reflecting on the other.
The themes of Professor Bloom's study are stated in its title and, more explicitly, in the subtitle of the book: "How Higher Education has failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul's of Today's Students." I tried to capture these themes in the title of this review: Education, Democracy, and Soul.
The first theme of the book is education. Professor Bloom argues that American higher education has lost its sense of purpose and direction. He finds this due to an emphasis on relativism and toleration and a reluctance to focus on questions of purpose and meaning. Similarly, Professor Bloom finds American education has become overly politicized and attuned to the concerns of the moment. He urges that liberal education return to its initial function of searching for wisdom and for self-knowledge. While not every student need pursue the liberal arts (in fact, it is a rare enterprise), Bloom finds that these studies must be available for those interested, and honored, if University education is to produce thoughtful human beings and an informed community holding values and the pursuit of truth in common. Bloom finds the source of liberal studies in ancient Greece with Socrates and his great student, Plato.
The second theme of the book is democracy, and American constitutionalism. American democracy remains a precious experiment and Bloom traces its roots to enlightenment thought, particularly in John Locke. The basic values of our system are liberty and equality. Bloom ties democratic values into a society devoted to the pursuit of empirical knowledge rather than superstition. He returns frequently in his book to Alexis de Touqueville's "Democracy and America" which captured a great deal of the promise of our country while warning of the levelling and conformity that would result from an unchecked, uncritical approach to a sociey in which each person's opinions counted as much as each other person's. There is much fascinating but difficult material in this book about German anti-rationalists beginning with Nietzsche and proceeding through Max Weber and Heidegger. These thinkers espoused theories, Bloom argues, fundamentally at odds with American democracy. Their theories have been vulgarized and watered-down and form the basis, Bloom argues, for the preoccupations of modern America with "life-styles" and "commitments" rather than reason. Bloom's historical discussions are difficult and move rather too quickly at times, but they are thoughtful and rewarding.
The third theme of the book is soul. For Bloom, soul is what our young people and our country are in danger of losing. Soul is at first blush exemplified by the Socratic pursuit. It is a conviction that some things are worth knowing and pursuing and it is an attempt to find them through serious enterprise. Soul is a matter of love, passion and effort. Bloom finds "soul" compromised by an attitude of relativism, of too easy commitments, and of a desire to compromise somewhat too easily in matters of love to attain the necessity of sex. Lack of soul, for Bloom, is exemplified in the pursuit of rock music by the young and not-so-young as an attempt to find an emotional high without the attendant spiritual and intellectual effort.
This book is difficult reading and there are moments when the polemics get in the way of the thought. This notwitstanding, the book is a passionate and deeply informed treatment of the life of the mind and sprit.
Okay in all honesty I expected this book to be a shallow polemic along the lines of some of the "popular" authors today, pushing an agenda and setting up straw man arguments, to provide an illusion of balance. Bloom, never backs down or even bother to set up "illusory" counter theses to further his, he just piles on the examples, historical as well as contemporary to nail his indictment of the vapidness of modern "Higher Education."
His thesis that the university today, reflects the general detachment of American society from the Puritan moral values that were paramount throughout American history, is conclusion that I would not have put together.
Is this book dated? When I started reading it I would ha e said yes, but as I digest the matter I have just completed, I see in myself the same sins of "culture" and value relativism that he sees as the symptom of the deconstruction of a Liberal education. As a engineering graduate, I hear in my own thoughts of a "superior" education that had very little of the messy humanities as part of my experience. I see that attitude as a shortcoming after reading Bloom, and one that sadly will be difficult to correct. Not that I am going to give up my technical high-paying career to become a philosopher, but I will now be forced to read and reread the very authors that Bloom uses to bolster his argument that it is those questions about values and the role of Man in relation to everything else that is important.
I found myself lost in a sea of ideas that I really had not considered at times and Bloom has the tendency to be over pedantic at times. My lack of depth to fully critique his philosophical and historical arguments provides hope that perhaps I will broaden the depth of my literary and historical perspective as Bloom suggests is the failing of my liberal education.
The book presents and reads like the kind of existential revelation that you'd think could only be found at the top of a mountain, or under an apple or Bodhi tree. From its exaltation of American democracy's founding principles in the spectacular introductory chapter to its implausible deconstruction of the rock 'n' roll music genre (a kind of rhetorical cousin to Richard Weaver's tirade against jazz) to its lengthy discussion of the university, "Closing" pries open your safest intellectual proclivities with a crackling urgency.
But take my advice: read the Afterward first. It does a valuable - for many young readers, I suspect *vital* - service of painting contrasting pictures of Bloom's era in which he first wrote this and the era that defines us today. The context will help, though it will be no substitute for the body of the book.